A few weeks ago two successive incidents left me grappling with the reality and the overwhelming problem of a society that is rapidly making ‘corruption’ the norm of everyday existence. While one elderly widow called me from Bangalore asking for help in saving her small plot of land and house bequeathed to her by her husband, another young widow thanked me for securing her the legitimately due pension. In the first case, this elderly lady told me how a few people were pestering her for many months to sell off her property to them which she did not want to do. She was living on the road close to the International airport and the pestering was tending to become intimidating. I was surprised at the anger in her voice when I politely suggested that she approach the local police. Apparently she had done so, only to be told that she should be happy that these people were at least willing to offer her a decent price. All I could do was to listen to her and feel her anger, pain and sense of helplessness.
The second person was a domestic help and had come to me for help to secure her widow pension. Being very poor with two daughters to take care of, she was well within the norms prescribed by the department and was eligible for her monthly pension. After more than 15 months of intense follow-up, we managed to get her the pension order a couple of months ago. She had come to me with a packet of sweets to thank me for the help and casually mentioned that she had gone to the local post office to get her first month’s pension of Rs 400. Surprised at the amount being lower than the Rs 500 that the Government was giving, I asked her about it. Innocently she replied that the postman told her that the pension would be Rs 400 if it came through the post office and Rs 500 if it was directly credited to her account. She not only believed this, but also was convinced that there was logic in the explanation. How many million poor and innocent people in this country live their everyday lives without worrying about how their lives are being affected by this all-pervasive corruption? I was also left wondering if she could have got her pension if I had let her negotiate with the system on her own. All that she would have needed to do was to grease the palms of the local officer and the opportunity cost might have been well worth it. The price of trying to work the system honestly was a delay of more than 12 months and Rs 6000 lost in the pension that she could have otherwise received. A mere Rs 3000 was the fee that she was asked by one of the ‘agents’ who had promised the pension within three months of her husband dying.
As I thought about these two incidents, my mind was drawn to another incident that had happened in our family more than 30 years ago. I was still a medical student then and we had just finished celebrating my sister’s wedding. A couple of weeks later, I found my father very distraught and worried. I learnt that he had received a notice from the Income Tax department asking him to explain how he had the money to buy jewelry worth Rs 20,000 for his daughter’s wedding. My father was then a Senior Audit Officer in the Accountant General’s office in Bangalore. Having been in service for nearly thirty years and being a senior gazetted officer, it was not illogical for anyone to understand that he could have surely saved Rs 20,000 that the jewels were worth. And being a very duty-conscious public servant, he had disclosed this purchase to his department as per laid down procedures. He was upset that a law-abiding citizen like him who had paid all his taxes and done everything by the rulebook had to be subjected to the humiliation (in his view) of receiving a notice from the Income Tax department. I could understand how he must have felt. This was the same person who would not even drink the coffee offered to him in the office where he was conducting the audit. Even that gesture of courtesy was for him unacceptable. That was the standard of ethics in his public life.
And today we live in a world where we have simply built into our transactions the cost of corruption. Whether it is getting our building or driving license, or the spectrum allocation for the telecom company or the permission to drill for oil or natural gas – everything comes at a price! It has become so much an integral part of our lives that we do not see the negative consequences of such actions. Whether it is the fire in a public building that occurred because the fire department overlooked the lacunae while granting the clearances, or buildings collapsing and killing hundreds only because the construction norms were allowed to be violated at a price or the state of our roads and utility companies today. In every sector that we can think of, corruption usually begins with the user looking for a short cut in order to maximize his profits in the short run. Very rarely does it occur to us that we are the final losers in this game of one-upmanship. From the corrupt politician that we elect after being bribed to do so, to the traffic violations that we want condoned by the local policeman for a petty sum – every one of these instances results in an unseen consequence for us. Unfortunately, most of us seem to be satisfied with the visible benefits of the money that we make or the time that we save or the losses that reduce. We can no longer talk of fighting corruption or merely nod our head in agreement watching television debates. Fighting corruption cannot be reduced to street-side sloganeering or waving the national flag. It needs to begin by we committing ourselves to staying honest whatever the inconvenience or the price that we need to pay.
We, as a Community or Society have to incentivize the actions of honest people. We need to celebrate goodness and make leading a virtuous life something that we can all be proud about. We have to disincentivize the corrupt and socially boycott such people. If we all make a collective decision not to entertain or invite any corrupt politician or official or any person who encourages corruption to any social event, and if we decide to not only look up to the honest but also look down upon the corrupt, can we then hope that this strong social signal will kick-start the change that all of us are desperately looking for.